Interviews December 2001

Bringing Life to Life

Bringing Life to Life

A conversation with Alice Munro, whose stories are fueled by her fascination with the way people portray their own lives
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
320 pages, $24

Alice Munro never meant to be a short-story writer. She'd aimed for sprawling novels, born of years of work and planning. But when it came down to it, there just wasn't time. "A child's illness, relatives coming to stay, a pile-up of unavoidable household jobs, can swallow a work-in-progress as surely as a power failure used to destroy a piece of work in the computer," she once wrote in an introduction to one of her short-story collections.

As a young author taking care of three small children, Munro learned to write in the slivers of time she had, churning out stories during children's nap times, in between feedings, as dinners baked in the oven. It took her nearly twenty years to put together the stories for her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, published in 1968 when Munro was thirty-seven. Since then, she has published ten other books, including her acclaimed latest, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and has become known as a master of the short-story form.

"With magical economy," a Washington Post reviewer wrote in 1998, "she sketches the contours of a life or a complex relationship, but it's a detailed portrait—with subtle shading and deep perspective—rather than a mere suggestion... Her stories are probably unrivaled in their fullness." As in her other fiction, the nine stories in Hateship, Friendship... are set in her native Canada, often in small, provincial towns similar to her own childhood home of Wingham, Ontario. They are, for the most part, stories of women—their desires, regrets, strengths, and weaknesses. On subjects ranging from a torrid love affair to a terminal illness to a cruel teenage prank played on an older, lonesome woman, Munro's stories explore the lavish life of the mind, and the effects one's inner perceptions can have on the world outside.

When I spoke with Alice Munro by phone from her daughter's house in Calgary, she and her husband were on their way to Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada, where they live for five months each winter. She was also only a few weeks past heart surgery—a procedure she mentioned only in reference to the delay it caused her cross-country drive. "We're late this year because of my surgery—we're not usually going out when we're ducking snowstorms," she told me. "But I just can't give up this drive. We've been driving through the same towns for years, and noticing what happens. It's like a time when you drop out of your life and into just being an observer." It is a role she knows well, and a skill she has honed over a lifetime of writing.

—Cara Feinberg

Alice Munro
Alice Munro   

In your introduction to one of your earlier collections, Selected Stories, you say your stories have, over the years, "grown longer, and in a way more disjointed and demanding and peculiar." Why do you think they've evolved this way?

You know, I'm not sure why this has happened, because when I'm writing a story, I don't really analyze it. But once I've got the story finished and I begin doing things with it, I think that in many ways what I've written breaks all the rules of the short story. This occurs to me, but not with any particular regret; I figure I can only write what interests me. So I don't try to do anything to make it a more regular story. In fact, if a story wants to go in a particular direction, I let that happen. I just put it out there and see what it does.

You said your stories tend to break the rules. How so?

Well, I have an idea. Some of the stories I admire seem to zero in on one particular time and place. There isn't a rule about this. But there's a tidy sense about many stories I read. In my own work, I tend to cover a lot of time and to jump back and forward in time, and sometimes the way I do this is not very straightforward. I feel that this is something that people may find they have to adjust to, but it's a way of saying whatever it is that I want to say, and it sort of has to be done this way. Time is something that interests me a whole lot—past and present, and how the past appears as people change.

I noticed that in many of your stories, particularly in this newest collection, your characters revisit an event from the past—from adolescence or even childhood. Can you speak more about time as a topic in your work?

Maybe I should say that memory interests me a great deal, because I think we all tell stories of our lives to ourselves, as well as to other people. Well, women do, anyway. Women do this a lot. And I think when men get older they do this too, but maybe in slightly different terms. I've listened to men talking, and they will tell about their lives in terms of times of trial—hunting trips, war experiences, times they told off a policeman. And women... well, of course women will do childbirth, and they will do illnesses, and what it was like with the children. I'm probably talking of women my age, for whom that was the major content of their lives. But they also seem to be looking for some big emotional story. They think about former marriages or love affairs and sort of make them into stories the way men will make the hunting trip into a story. What interests me is how these stories are made—what is put in at different times in your life, what is left out at different times, and how you use the stories to see yourself, or sometimes just to make life bearable for yourself. Very few people seem to want to see their lives in terms of one pointless thing after another.

Many of your stories are about women. How do you feel about being called a feminist writer?

Naturally my stories are about women—I'm a woman. I don't know what the term is for men who write mostly about men. I'm not always sure what is meant by "feminist." In the beginning I used to say, well, of course I'm a feminist. But if it means that I follow a kind of feminist theory, or know anything about it, then I'm not. I think I'm a feminist as far as thinking that the experience of women is important. That is really the basis of feminism.

Over the course of your career, have you changed the type of women you write about?

I'm not sure that I have. I'm not an autobiographical writer, but I've pretty well followed my own life in terms of what I think about and what I see. So if now I'm writing stories about an older woman looking back on her life, it's because of where I am now. I was a young woman when I wrote "Walker Brothers Cowboy" [a story about a young child spending the day with her father]. I was then in my thirties, and I was looking back on my childhood—so I do tend to look back. I don't tend to do the present very well. I have to see things in the rearview mirror before I can get what they were all about. I still write a lot about the sixties, which was a watershed decade for women of my age. We weren't young enough to really be with that decade, but we were young enough to see that all possibilities were not closed to us. It's something I look back on over and over again. But during the sixties, I was writing The Lives of Girls and Women, which is about a much earlier period.

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